Terre Haute @ Theater B at 59E59 , New York

cast list
Peter Eyre, Nick Westrate

directed by
George Perrin
Writer Edmund White, known primarily for his gay-themed novels, makes an impressive impact with his latest play Terre Haute.

Based on the real-life correspondence between famed writer Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, this taut two-hander fictionalizes the relationship between these two famous men, imagining that they met in Terre Haute, the site of the federal death row, in the days leading up to McVeigh’s 2001 execution.

The play, which runs a well-paced 80 minutes, plays out over the course of four approximately twenty-minute visits within the prison.
Vidal has been renamed James, and McVeigh is called Harrison, the two of them exchanging ideological points and relating on a more personal level, developing a complicated emotional relationship by the play’s end. The writer James, grilling the prisoner, hopes that Harrison will reveal to him the details of “the events” – as Harrison calls the bombing – for the first time, material he hopes to use in a series of articles for the publication The Nation.

As played out on Hannah Clark’s claustrophobic set, dimly lit by Matthew Eagland and consisting of a cubic holding cell, a few chairs, and a table, the drama is entirely reliant on the actors and the meat of the play. Though two-character plays often suffer from a lack of tension, direct-address monologues from the character of James help develop his character beyond the contents of his exchanges with Harrison.

White also does an excellent job establishing the distinct dictions of his characters – the measured, academic James sounding erudite in comparison to hot-blooded, meandering Harrison. The two are played expertly by Peter Eyre and Nick Westrate respectively. Eyre’s corduroy voice, soft and ridged, captures the Europeanized American spirit of James’s character, while Westrate’s fiery portrayal of Harrison has just the right heat and unrestrained vigor, punctuated by the frantic arm gestures of a hardened criminal.

Besides for the business concerning James’s proposed series of articles, the real conflict of the piece is between the James’s orderly life – composed of a series of events he can rattle off like the plot summary of a movie – and Harrison’s single defining Dionysian action. The detailed dynamic between the two allows an audience a finely cut lens through which to see Harrison in a more symphathetic light. It’s difficult to make an audience care about such a despicable character, but we’re able to see him through James’s eyes, and, therefore, to – in some way – understand him.

White adds an additional underlying level of homosexual tension to flesh out the relationship between the two men, heterosexual Harrison and bisexual James; this is ultimately the glue that holds the play together. The erotic tension is perfectly pitched – it’s neither too demure nor too provocative – and it’s entirely supported by the rest of the play, which establishes the slow build of James’s multifaceted fascination with Harrison. As perfectly staged by director George Perrin and acted by the two-man cast, Terre Haute takes a set-up that could have been static and wrings from it the stuff of real, full-bodied drama.

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